Instagram arms control: WMD prevention versus internet freedom

We must not take internet freedom for granted and push too hard on “promoting social verification technologies”.

Inside Story - Policing the internet
The accelerated fragmentation of the World Wide Web into a Balkanised territory of national intranets would set back the movement towards greater free speech worldwide [Reuters]

Few things are as important to long-term strategic interests of the United States and the United Kingdom as preventing the spread of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) and preserving the internet as a secure and uncensored resource for people around the world. So, it is important that Americans and Brits better understand how their governments’ policy approaches toward these objectives interact with one another. 

If one accepts the primacy of WMD disarmament and counter-proliferation over all other policy considerations, then perhaps such investigation is irrelevant. Some would argue that any solution that enables the international community account for the production, possession and procurement of WMD by others should be supported a priori

However, as the Cold War taught the Soviets, national security is about far more than just political and military security. It is also dependent upon wider considerations. From our perspective, these include economic, societal and environmental security. 

This begs the question: How should the US and UK governments utilise the internet in implementing their future WMD policy objectives if their goal is to maximise national security? 

Need publicly-stated policies

Earlier this year, the US Acting Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security, Rose Gottemoeller, addressed this issue in a series of public speaking events. She commented: “Private citizens may (now) contribute to monitoring for illicit weapons of mass destruction wherever they are found” using social media and related technologies. It is easy to imagine such a scenario: a foreign citizen using his/her camera-enabled mobile phone to identify suspicious activities related to WMD activities.

But, as Gottemoeller quickly acknowledged, any efforts to arm foreign citizens with social verification technologies would face serious technical, legal and political barriers. And, the greatest challenge facing social verification technologies will surely be the political line between privacy and security. In fact, we are already seeing great tension on this issue at the United Nation’s World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT). 

Should we then reconsider whether pursuing overt “citizen verification through social media” or “anti-censorship and surveillance” initiatives – such as the US State Department’s $23m public solicitation for technologies that help overcome censorship and surveillance in “internet hostile” environments – advance our national interests? 


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To answer this question, we need publicly-stated policies that take into consideration how best to balance our interest in internet freedom against our other interests, including WMD disarmament and counter-proliferation. 

In their absence, we simply have no grounds to assess whether government promotion of overt programmes – whose expressed aim is to deploy technologies that are perceived as threats to sovereignty not only by pariah states like Iran, North Korea and Syria, but also significant trading partners such as China, Venezuela and Russia – is the right thing to do. 

To be clear, our point is not to criticise the US State Department and the Obama administration for promoting innovation in arms verification (a much needed change). Nor is it to argue that the American and British governments should prioritise economic and social interests over political and military ones. 

Instead, it is to argue that these programmes require further consideration premised on the fact that both countries must always prioritise their national interests, as comprised holistically, above all else – even if it means reconsidering programmes that could help advance WMD disarmament and counter-proliferation when they come into conflict with our national interests.

Ultimately, Gottemoeller’s comments earlier this year should be viewed as a valuable contribution to the ever-contested debate on how to best promote international security. It may be that social verification technologies do not pose the risks that one might infer from this argument. (It is certainly true that repression in cyberspace predates any discussion of social verification.)

It could also be that authoritarian regimes are fighting a losing battle to restrict internet access and suppress free expression online because doing so could undermine important social and business networks that they depend on for legitimacy. 

Social verification technologies

Our main argument is that we must not take internet freedom for granted and push too hard and too fast on promoting social verification technologies. If we do, we run the risk of foreign governments labelling organisations that promote internet freedom (for example, western software companies, non-governmental organisations, universities and civil society groups) and individuals who possess technology related to social verification (for example, domestic actors in their own countries) as legitimate security threats. 

What would we do if foreign governments suddenly started targeting civil society within (and possibly outside) of their own countries in response to these programmes? Such questions raise serious ethical and moral issues beyond the obvious political, economic and legal concerns. 

Social verification and internet freedom programmes could even provide the grounds for political elites in “internet hostile” countries to successfully re-frame the international debate over the internet from “the backbone of global economic growth” to “the primary threat to state sovereignty”. 

The accelerated fragmentation of the World Wide Web into a Balkanised territory of national intranets would set back the movement towards greater free speech worldwide and seriously undermine the commercial competitiveness of American and British companies, especially in high-value sectors like technology and banking. 

In the end, we all know that foreign policy is about undertaking calculated responses to assessed risks. Foreign policy decisions are rarely easy and straightforward. The decision over social verification technologies is no exception.

For this reason, we must demand that social verification technologies be opened to inquiry by outside experts and relevant members of civil society. Such deliberation remains long overdue on both sides of the Atlantic. 

Eddie Walsh is a research candidate at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

Follow him on Twitter: @aseanreporting

Mark Jansson is the special projects director for the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, DC.

Follow him on Twitter: @FAScientists